Essay submitted by Dr. Roland Sawatzky
Curator of History, Manitoba Museum
Any view of a distant future for Winnipeg must start in the past.
As a museum curator, I am always thinking about history and how to make it relevant and engaging for our visitors. Winnipeg’s history is like any city’s history – it’s a constant interplay between the needs and desires of its citizens, and the structures of power, whether they be physical or political or economic.
Winnipeg’s particular history revolves around structures first entrenched in the 1870s. This includes the unity of capitalist economy and political power, usually in the guise of men who were both business leaders and political leaders. Embedded into this structure were the racisms and discriminations of the day, part of an overarching British colonialism which continues to reverberate in our city.
Any vision of the future is also based on the conditions of the present, and is a response to our current challenges. Today’s dominant themes – social justice (as reflected in truth and reconciliation and Black Lives Matter), environmental crises, and the city’s uneven distribution of wealth, all impact our hopes for the future. Telling history will be an important part of this process.
Winnipeg’s early history was dominated by raw and often destructive capitalism, but together we are building, and continue to build, a different economy for our future. It can emphasize small businesses, where people work for their own and their community’s interests, rather than the profit interests of a corporation. The class system, which sees the middle class as the driver of all that is good and useful, can be replaced by more humane and holistic structure fueled by a universal basic income. Perhaps after our current pandemic experience, this may no longer seem like a utopian dream.
Like all cities, Winnipeg was forever changed by automobiles and the infrastructure that was built to feed them. Streets should be built for people instead, with an infrastructure embedded in nature, rather than paving over it. As habitually bipedal humans, we should fight for the right to be able to walk wherever we need to go. Empowering local businesses and building nature-centred routes will benefit everyone, including the suburbs. Our switch to renewable energies, already underway, can help drive this change.
Finally, Winnipeg has evolved immensely over the last 100 years in telling its own story. From a colonial city that once emphasized only one cultural path, we now work to include, if imperfectly, Indigenous histories, and different cultural backgrounds. Winnipeg can become a better global city by returning to our Red River roots. Indigenous knowledge, care, and culture are a positive heritage from which all Winnipeggers, present and future, can benefit. We can work to continue to open those doors together – this is part of the work of truth and reconciliation. At the same time, new peoples that join us in the city will have their stories celebrated. In one hundred years, this will be a baseline for how we approach telling our collective history.
We know museums and galleries will be different in the future, perhaps smaller and more diversified, and certainly with different methods of engagement. And I hope that they will be more connected, in a way that ensures stories are constantly revised and celebrated, and never forgotten or ignored.
Roland Sawatzky was born in Winnipeg and has made the city his home for the last 20 years. He has a PhD in Archaeology from Simon Fraser University, and joined the Manitoba Museum in 2011. He conducts research and develops exhibits related to the settlement and modern periods in Manitoba, including the history of Winnipeg. Roland helped lead the development of the new Winnipeg Gallery, and has been heavily involved in the creation of the new Prairies Gallery at the museum. He is married and has two children, and lives in the Wolseley neighbourhood.